Production for The Good Puppet of Szechuan is actually well under way. at Walking Fish Theatre. Actually, the building process is not at Walking Fish Theatre. It’s at the puppetry studio of Leslie Rogers, of Puppet Uprising. Today we talked to Zac and saw how the characters are getting fleshed out.
The puppets are not actually being fleshed out. They’re being carved out, or foamed out. The puppet heads are made out of sheets of foam which are trimmed to size and glued together in layers using industrial styrofoam into bricks. Then Zac cuts them into a head-like shape, draws on the facial features, and trims away the extra using this very strange electrical trimming device. It looks like a cheese slicer, but an electrical current is fed through the wire to make it easier to cut away the foam.
Generally, puppet makers use a special wire in this device, which is very expensive and difficult to find. “I’m using an E string from a guitar,” he said. “It works just as well. A B string is too thick and it won’t work. So, instead of hunting down this really expensive wire, I snuck into my roomate Chad’s room while he was sleeping and took the E string off of his guitar.”
It’s probably hard to tell which part of the puppet head is the crown and which is the chin from this picture. Zac also showed us his designs for some of the characters. The play has nearly 30 characters, and not all of them will use puppets as intricate as the ones on which Zac worked today. They’ll involve many different styles of puppetry, from simple cloth or cardboard rod puppets to the intricate ones you see in Zac’s designs here. For the main characters, along with the foam heads, Zac and Leslie sculpted wire mesh cages for the puppets’ torsos.
After about 30 minutes of trimming and carving with a small X-Acto blade, Zac was sanding the foam smooth. “I kind of picture her as looking like a frog,” he said, ‘which you probably noticed from the design.” He had a copy of Stan’s script at the ready, already loaded with ink from production notes. The eyes and nose are carved from separate pieces of foam, owing to their delicacy.
It was far from finished, but already expressive.
The heads on these characters are a little bigger than that of an average-sized child, and the bodies are proportionate. Both Zac Palladino and Leslie Rogers have experience in puppet-making and other fine arts, and have made everything from life-sized anatomically correct dolls to and animated films to giant bunraku puppets out of corrugated cardboard and the massive Great Fish, which Zac created and rode for Walking Fish Theatre in the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby. “Leslie’s really generous to let us use her studio,” Zac said. “When I tried to build that fish in my living room, I had cardboard and paper mache all over the place, and there just wasn;t enough room.” For now, the only chaos was a small pile of pink foam chips, easily swept up. Beginnings are a good time.